What to Say to Someone Who Is Putting Off the COVID-19 Vaccine

Worried about the people in your life who refuse to get the shot? Experts address their concerns and answer those lingering questions that many of us still wonder about.

The COVID-19 vaccines are easily accessible these days, and that's a big win (thank you, scientists). Most people have eagerly gotten their shots: As of May 2022, 83 percent of eligible Americans have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and71 percent were fully vaccinated, which is great news. But we all know people who are still on the fence about getting it done—and you might even be one of them. Here's what experts say we need to know about the vaccines, and why they are safer than people think.

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Courtesy of Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

The Vaccines Are Still New, and I'm Worried About the Side Effects. Won't I Be Better Off Waiting to Get It?

It's understandable to be a little nervous about getting vaccinated. When the COVID-19 vaccines were first released, many people worried that they had been rushed through the approval process, and feared they might be unsafe. But researchers have been working on mRNA vaccine technology for decades, and our current options were just as rigorously scrutinized as any other approved vaccine, required to go through the same tightly controlled clinical trials and tests. Thousands of people tried the shots before the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized them for use and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended them to the public—and their introduction has been followed up with possibly the most widespread safety monitoring system ever created.

Regarding side effects, some people who get vaccinated do not experience them. Others experience temporary flu-like symptoms, such as chills, aches, fatigue, or fever, which tend to be mild. As the CDC notes, "Serious side effects that could cause a long-term health problem are extremely unusual following any vaccination, including COVID-19 vaccination." Even if your side effects are briefly worse, experts say this is a small price to pay when lowering your risk for severe illness. If you have concerns about what's actually in the vaccines, rest assured that none contain any part of a live virus or any heavy metals.

You have probably heard about blood clots in a small number of people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That news is alarming, but it's helpful to put it into context. By the time use of the J&J vaccine was paused in April 2021, 6.8 million people had already gotten the shot with no major issues. A year later, just 3.8 individuals in a million had experienced a clot. Even so, the CDC now recommends Pfizer and Moderna vaccines instead out of an abundance of caution.

Compare that to your odds of developing a clot when you have COVID-19, which are 39 in 1 million (or 0.0039 percent), says immunologist Gigi Gronvall, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

It's true that cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated people are possible and that these breakthrough cases are becoming more common with new viral variants. But there's good news here, too. Getting vaccinated does more than lessen your symptoms—it dramatically reduces your chances of hospitalization and death from the disease.

Unfortunately, another truth is that anyone who remains unvaccinated is currently 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than a vaccinated person. "Getting the vaccine is so important," affirms Dr. Gronvall. The thing is, it's not just you that you're protecting: You're keeping anyone else who is immunocompromised or unvaccinated safe from whatever you carry with you.

Once I've Gotten the Vaccine, Am I Protected in All Situations?

Although the vaccines are very effective, like all vaccines, they do not offer 100 percent protection from infection. People who are vaccinated and boosted can still get COVID-19 (albeit with far fewer symptoms) and may potentially pass it to others. For the time being, the CDC strongly advises wearing a mask indoors in public settings and practicing other COVID-safe measures when you live in areas of high transmission, even if you have been vaccinated. If you are unvaccinated or immunocompromised, many health care professionals still suggest that you wear a mask in the same situations even if you live in areas of moderate transmission.

But if you and friends and family have all had your vaccinations, "there is no reason why family gatherings shouldn't become easier," says Yvette Conyers, D.N.P., assistant professor of community health and population nursing at St. John Fisher College, and the president of the Rochester Black Nurses Association. In areas of low or medium transmission, the current CDC guidance suggests that fully vaccinated people can visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe disease without wearing masks or practicing social distancing. In other words, yes, your healthy child can safely snuggle with their vaccinated grandparents again, which we're sure is welcome news.

If you do decide to get vaccinated, stay vigilant. Social gatherings should wait until two weeks after you receive your second dose, the point at which the CDC says people are "fully vaccinated." And, of course, continue precautions like proper hand-washing.

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Does Being Vaccinated Keep Me Safe From New COVID-19 Variants?

So far, the COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. continue to offer protection against the most severe forms of the disease caused by new variants (though as noted, breakthrough infections do occur). If you want to safeguard your family, being vaccinated provides the best defense you're going to get, and it shortens the length of time during which you can spread the virus to others.

When you think about it, it's pretty impressive. (As infectious disease specialist Laith Abu-Raddad told Nature magazine in March 2022, "The vaccines are actually working remarkably well, given the challenges of evolution.") Don't let your worries about variants keep you from getting the shot. Variants exist because COVID-19 has spread unchecked, mutating as it infected more and more people. Slowing the spread will help to slow further mutations.

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What About Trips? Can My Family Travel Again Once We Have Been Vaccinated?

The CDC says that fully vaccinated people can travel safely within the U.S. However, since children under 6 months are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, it's a good idea to consider driving rather than flying if you're traveling with young children (especially now that masks are recommended but no longer required in airports and on planes). Traveling by car is still your safest bet, emphasizes Emily Landon, M.D., an associate professor of medicine and the executive medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medicine.

Wherever you go, search for hotels or Airbnbs with solid cleaning protocols. Remember to check the community transmission level at your destination and be vigilant about wearing masks and washing hands when you're in a potential exposure situation or a high-transmission area. The CDC still recommends avoiding packed, poorly ventilated spaces, and masking up when they can't be avoided.

International travel is tempting, we know, but it could potentially put you in the path of new viral variants you may not yet have encountered. If you want to go, make sure you are up-to-date on your vaccines, and check the CDC's country list to see what the level of transmission is where you land. (Many countries remain surprisingly high.) It's wise to get tested for COVID-19 no more than three days before you go, so you know your status and don't unwittingly spread the virus abroad. If you have other health issues that make you medically vulnerable, consider delaying trips to high-risk areas.

Foreign travel offers an abundance of reasons to get the shot. For one thing, COVID-19 vaccines may not be as widely available in the country you're visiting as they are here. The country's health care system may also be more strained or inaccessible, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project. You don't want to bring the virus to that country or find yourself unwell there. "It's an equity issue," she adds. "If one person is unwell, we're all unwell." That's the story back home, too.

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